"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Thursday, May 8, 2008

"That they may be one"

"Adoration of the Trinity"
Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528)

Today's Gospel reading includes some of the verses that serve as the Scriptural reason for this blog:

Lifting up his eyes to heaven, Jesus prayed saying:
"I pray not only for these,
but also for those who will believe in me through their word,
so that they may all be one,
as you, Father, are in me and I in you,
that they also may be in us,
that the world may believe that you sent me.
And I have given them the glory you gave me,
so that they may be one, as we are one,
I in them and you in me,
that they may be brought to perfection as one,
that the world may know that you sent me,
and that you loved them even as you loved me.
Father, they are your gift to me.
I wish that where I am they also may be with me,
that they may see my glory that you gave me,
because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
Righteous Father, the world also does not know you,
but I know you, and they know that you sent me.
I made known to them your name and I will make it known,
that the love with which you loved me
may be in them and I in them." (John 17: 20-26)

Last year I had a conversation with a Protestant concerning the interpretation of one word in this passage. But to explain this conversation, I'll need to give some background.

The early Church knew that Christ is divine, that Christ is not God the Father, that the Holy Spirit is divine, that the Holy Spirit is neither God the Father nor Christ, and that there are not many Gods but only one God. But the early Church did not initially have the philosophical tools to explain how these various truths are compatible. Faced with the challenges from skeptics and philosophers, and especially from Greek philosophy, the Church fathers acquired philosophical tools to explain that Christ and the Father [and the Holy Spirit] are homoousious [the same in substance or being], not the same in hypostasis [Person]. We see this language already in the first Ecumenical Council of Nicea in 325, from which (with some additions from the Second Ecumenical Council) we get the Nicene Creed. In this way, the Church took these philosophical tools and used them in the making of Catholic dogma, through the Ecumenical Councils. The notions of substance and person in explication of the Christian teaching about the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit have since been part of the infallible dogma of the Church.

Now, fast forward fifteen hundred years. Bound up with the [Protestant] notion of sola scriptura is a denial of the infallibility of any Church council or papal decree. Sola scriptura thus entails that any line of any creed or conciliar or papal decree could be false. Hence the Protestant conception of sola scriptura calls into question the Church's dogmatic conclusions resulting from her appropriation of philosophical concepts to explain the coherence of her theological claims about the relation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The result is that beliefs such as Sabellianism or even tritheism are 'heresies' only if the individual Protestant interlocutor concludes that these beliefs are contrary to his interpretation of Scripture.

The term 'heresy', which in Catholic theology is defined in relation to the authoritative determinations of the Church, in a sola scriptura context can only ultimately be defined in relation to the individual's interpretation of Scripture; see
here. To see that, one need only ask the Protestant who denies being a biblicist the grounds on which he determines which councils and creeds are authoritative. It soon becomes clear that he determines whether or not they or any part of them are 'authoritative' by seeing whether or not they agree with his own interpretation of Scripture. He is therefore actually a biblicist, though he typically acts and treats himself as though he is not [see here, for example]. The self-described biblicist/fundamentalist is thus more self-aware than the Protestant who denies being a biblicist.

The particular conversation I mentioned above concerned the meaning of the word 'one' in the verses of today's Gospel reading, wherein Christ says that He and the Father are one. My interlocutor, coming from a sola scriptura point of view, did not recognize the authority of the Creed and thus the truth of homoouious. He was suspicious of any philosophy used in theology, and especially suspicious of Greek philosophy. His position regarding the Trinity was a form of "social trinitarianism" in which the three Persons are one not in substance or being, but in love. (This is a form of tritheism, although my interlocutor would not have described his position with that term.)

When Jesus prays (in John 17) that all who believe in Him would be one just as He and the Father are one, a tritheist interprets these verses very differently than the Catholic Church understands them. A tritheist interprets these verses to mean that Jesus simply wants us all to love each other; our unity is to be an interpersonal unity. The tritheist does not interpret these verses to mean that Christ wants us all to be in any sense ontologically one (i.e. one in being), because of course Christ would not ask that we be more unified with each other than He is with the Father. The Catholic Church believes, of course, that Christ wants all believers to love one another. But because the Catholic Church understands the unity of the divine Persons of the Trinity as not only interpersonal but also ontological (e.g. homoouious), the Church understands that Christ is praying in John 17 that all believers also be incorporated into one Body, the Church, whose Head is Christ. So the difficulty here in talking with a biblicist about the ecclesial implications of this passage in John 17 is that the Church's appeal to these verses as a support for Christ's desire for institutional unity among all believers depends upon a Catholic understanding of the Trinity, which itself is grounded in a Catholic understanding of the authority of Ecumenical Councils. This seems to put the defender of Catholicism in a position of circularity viz-a-viz the biblicist.

How then do we (Catholics) reason with the biblicist with the aim of coming to theological agreement and ecumenical unity? It seems to me that we cannot do so within the framework of his biblicism. (See Tertullian's statement regarding ecclesial authority and interpretation.) We have to turn our attention to his biblicism itself, such that he comes to see that his denial of Church authority is the error underlying his disagreement concerning what sort of unity Christ is praying for in John 17. But the movement from biblicism to an acceptance of Church authority is not simply a matter of following the movement from the premises to the conclusion of a deductive argument; it is rather a kind of paradigm shift. (See my post titled "Two Paradigms".) So the conversation with a biblicist about such a matter requires the patience and humility of learning to look at all the available evidence (including the evidence from the early Church and the fathers) from within these two different paradigms, and thus helping our biblicist interlocutors come to see this evidence from within the Catholic paradigm.

Underlying biblicism is a form of doubt, a distrust. It is in fact a distrust of Christ, though it is typically expressed and consciously experienced and understood as only a form of distrust in men and the Church as institution. (Even though it is a distrust of Christ, it is not culpable insofar as it is the result of invincible ignorance.) This distrust/doubt is itself made possible by a kind of gnosticism that separates matter from form, Body from Spirit, and the Church from Christ her invisible Head. (See my post titled "Sex, Dualism and Ecclesial Unity"; see also my paper on the gnostic roots of heresy.) This gnostic separation of matter from form allows its holder to presume to trust the spiritual while rejecting the material. It thus allows the biblicist to claim to trust the invisible Christ while rejecting His visible Body, to claim to be a member of the "invisible Church" while eschewing the visible institution Christ founded. It claims to want the spiritual Jesus, not the incarnate Jesus, to want the living Spirit, not a "dead institution". (Sound familiar?) The reality and permanence of Christ's incarnation means that Christ and His Body can never be separated, that to trust in Christ is to trust in His Body the Church, to love Christ is to love His Body. (See here and here.) The gnostic division of matter and form (embracing form while rejecting matter) is what sets up the ecclesial deism that underlies both Mormonism and Protestantism, as I have argued here.

In my next post, I'm going to write about love and ecclesial unity. But here I have tried to show that in order to talk with the biblicist about the ecumenical implications of John 17, we have to step back and help our interlocutor come to see outside the biblicist paradigm, helping him to see all the evidence from the Catholic paradigm. When one looks at all the evidence from both paradigms, the experience of moving from the biblicist to the Catholic paradigm is like the experience of peering into a dim room when someone turns on the light. The Catholic paradigm includes and incorporates all that is true in the biblicist paradigm, but explains so much more, including why the biblicist paradigm is so incomplete. But the same is not true when moving from the Catholic paradigm to the biblicist paradigm. So the ecumenical dialogue should be something like a kitchen table conversation in which we are seeking to help each other see the evidence from our respective paradigms. The standard mistake in ecumenical dialogue is to start debating a text or doctrine without taking into account our paradigm [meta-level] differences. We end up simply talking past each other, and misunderstanding each other and sometimes getting frustrated, because we are not focused on the fundamental *perspectival* and *methodological* differences that stand under and behind our more proximate and apparent differences in Scripture interpretation and doctrine.

In accord with the intention of Christ's sacred heart exposed in this high priestly prayer, may the Holy Spirit work through us to make us all one, as Christ and the Father are one, by incorporating us all fully into Christ's Body, the Church.

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